2003-02-20 / This Week's Attitude

Verizon Begat Confusion On Eleven-Digit Dialing Start

This Week
By Neil S. Friedman

This Week’s

In response to the escalation of telecommunication devices — such as computers, portable phones, and faxes — in recent years, there’s been a continual need for more telephone numbers and area codes.

To meet the surge in New York City, Verizon, the largest regional telephone company, announced an 11-digit dialing system would begin on February 1. (Just a note: dialing isn’t really what most of us still do, is it? We touch or press! But I’ll stick with the conventional word.)

Some New Yorkers were aware the change was coming. But, some didn’t, or can’t seem to remember to dial one when calling outside their area code, so the modification caught them by surprise.

Nevertheless, anyone who has made a telephone call in the last five years — essentially anyone over age 10 — should be aware that when you call another area code, you must dial one, an area code and a seven-digit number. It should be second nature, like tying shoelaces or brushing your teeth.

But you wouldn’t believe how many callers still don’t know to dial eleven numbers when calling an area code other than their own. Due to my residential telecommunications situation, I’ve literally had hundreds of misdialed phone calls over the last six months. It’s frustrating and annoying, especially at 2 a.m.!

Several years ago the FCC forced new area codes on New York City to meet the growing communications demands. Among the new area codes were 917 and 646. Someone at Verizon should have reminded the FCC that 646 is an active exchange in Brooklyn to avoid any confusion. No one did. Therefore, I’ve had to endure hundreds of misdialed phone calls since last summer. I’ve learned that though some newly issued area codes duplicate active exchanges, they are not distributed in locations where they exist. Perhaps some FCC bureaucrat thought it was funny to stick it to a few hundred New Yorkers with an active exchange. Like me!

My home number is a 646 exchange — the first three numbers after the area code. So this time it’s personal — very personal. Anyone over 40 might remember that 646 was once NI-6, or Nightingale 6, one of the memorable alphabet exchanges discarded in favor of numerals more than a generation ago. Other well-known exchanges at the time were Butterfield (BU), Murray Hill, Bigelow, Cloverdale, Columbus and Sheepshead.

My telephone number was issued to my family when we first moved to Sheepshead Bay in 1950. This seven-digit telephone number carries a heckuva lot of sentiment and memories. Old friends and acquaintances who return for a visit call from memory without hesitation. Therefore, I ain’t changing it.

When February 1 came and went and my problem persisted I contacted Verizon. An amiable corporate communications spokesperson said they announced 11-digit dialing would BEGIN (emphasis is mine) on February 1, but it would take four weeks for the system "to completely roll out." Meanwhile every media outlet that did a story on 11-digit dialing reported it was now compulsory. Like me, they apparently didn’t understand Verizon’s misleading semantics.

Well, here it is nearly three weeks in operation and my home phone can still be dialed with only seven numbers from some parts of Brooklyn, including my office. At work I can still dial home and several other 718 numbers in only seven digits. What once was dozens of wrong numbers a day at home has dwindled to six or seven.

Incidentally, on Feb. 3, the first business day after the 11-digit dialing began, several media outlets reported a host of problems in New York City. Verizon essentially told one television news reporter that the initial problems would be "gone in a few weeks" once the system is completely in place.

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish-born American inventor, shouted, "Watson, come here, I need you," into a primitive device in the 19th century, the telephone has been the primary source of telecommunication. (And much more personal than E-mail.)

Despite an extensive public service campaign that hundreds obviously ignored, it appears Verizon, a multibillion dollar corporation that serves millions of customers, would have better prepared its customers for the 11-digit dialing system, instead of leaving some customers caught in a network of confusion.

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